Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 10:52 AM
So, apparently these types of courses are really taking hold...
full text of article
below (6 pages)
U Penn's Positive Psychology site
with 'Signature Strengths Questionnaire' (cited in full article)
By D.T. MAX
The New York Times, January 7, 2007
One Tuesday last fall I sat in on a positive-psychology class called the Science of Well-Being — essentially a class in how to make yourself happier — at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. George Mason is a challenge for positive psychologists because it is one of the 15 unhappiest campuses in America, at least per The Princeton Review. Many students are married and already working and commute to school. It’s a place where you go to move your career forward, not to find yourself.
The class was taught by Todd Kashdan, a 32-year-old psychology professor whose area of research is “curiosity and well-being.” Kashdan bobbed around the room or sat, legs dangling, on his desk beneath a big PowerPoint slide that said “The Scientific Pursuit of Happiness” as he took the students, a few older than he, through the various building blocks of positive psychology: optimism, gratitude, mindfulness, hope, spirituality...The focus of Kashdan’s class that day was the distinction between feeling good, which according to positive psychologists only creates a hunger for more pleasure — they call this syndrome the hedonic treadmill — and doing good, which can lead to lasting happiness.
Though Kashdan brought up published studies that optimistic people live longer and that certain regions of the brains of positive people show more activity (“Have a very active left prefrontal lobe day,” he joked at one point), in class they didn’t spend a lot of time on clinical research. Absent were the rats with electrodes, data charts, syndromes and neuroses. The main experimental corpus seemed to be the students themselves, with Kashdan assuming the role of therapist, asserting that pleasure isn’t enough...“I never use the word morality,” Kashdan said. Rather his goal was to show that “there are ways of living that research shows lead to better outcomes.”
More than 200 colleges and graduate schools in the United States offer classes like the one at George Mason....The introductory positive-psychology class at Harvard attracted 855 students last spring, making it the most popular class at the school. “I teach my class on two levels,” says Tal Ben-Shahar, the instructor. “It’s like a regular academic course. The second level is where they ask the question, How can I apply this to my life?” True, the course is known as a gut, but it is also significant that 23% of the students who commented on it in the undergraduate evaluation guide said that it had improved their lives...
Positive psychology brings the same attention to positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, well-being) that clinical psychology has always paid to the negative ones (depression, anger, resentment). Psychoanalysis once promised to turn acute human misery into ordinary suffering; positive psychology promises to take mild human pleasure and turn it into a profound state of well-being. “Under certain circumstances, people — they’re not desperate or in misery — they start to wonder what’s the best thing life can offer,” says Martin Seligman, one of the field’s founders, who heads the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Thus positive psychology is not only about maximizing personal happiness but also about embracing civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity. “Aristotle taught us virtue isn’t virtue unless you choose it,” Seligman says.
Sitting in Kashdan’s classroom, you might wonder whether psychology had abandoned its proper territory or found a new one, and if a new one, whether it owed more to science or to Sunday school. Perhaps that was because the class reflected the discipline’s own tension between simplicity and complexity, “good tough science,” as Seligman calls it, and airier talk of values. With its emphasis on the self in the world, positive psychology is already an ethics seminar. Which is fitting, given that it has its roots in a Socratic dialogue of sorts. Seligman likes to tell the story of how his daughter Nikki, when she was 5, accused him of being a grouch. She reminded him that he had criticized her for being whiny and that she had worked hard to stop whining. If she could stop being whiny, he could stop being grumpy. He realized, he says, that she was right, that he was “a pessimist and depressive and someone of high critical intelligence” and that he needed to change. Seligman, who at 54 had just been elected president of the American Psychological Association and was renowned for his hard science — most of his research had been in depression — decided to put his considerable talents into finding out “what made life worth living.”
Though positive psychology is only beginning to be used as an educational tool in classrooms and secondary schools, in the nine years since Seligman’s epiphany it has taken a firm hold in academia. The field’s steering committee includes a number of psychologists and psychiatrists who have done highly regarded clinical work: Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose specialty is “subjective well-being”; Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan, who has made a study of admired character traits around the world; George Vaillant, who has long headed a Harvard project tracking success and failure among the college’s graduates; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University, who has spent years studying “optimal functioning,” or the state of being intensely absorbed in a task, what he calls “flow.” Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness, published in 2002, lays out the field’s fundamental principles and has been translated into nearly 20 languages...
Despite its seemingly American emphasis on self-reliance and self-expression, positive psychology is also proving popular in England and the British Commonwealth. Nick Baylis, a psychologist at Cambridge University, helped found the Well-being Institute there last year and is consulting with Wellington College, a private boarding and day school, on how to apply positive psychology to its curriculum. The Geelong Grammar School, a prestigious boarding and day school in Australia, is planning to shape its curriculum around the precepts of positive psychology in 2008, and the government of Scotland has also been in touch with Seligman to see whether the discipline might help its citizens. “Our old nation has been renewed through our new Parliament, and if we can embrace this new science of positive psychology, we have the opportunity to create a new Enlightenment,” one government official announced.
Positive psychology is popular with educators because if happiness is something that can be learned, it can be taught. And because being happier seems to have positive long-term effects not just on well-being but also on health and life span. In one often-cited study, researchers at the University of Kentucky analyzed the essays novices born before 1917 wrote on entering the School Sisters of Notre Dame and correlated them to the nuns’ life spans. They found that 9 out of 10 of the most positive 25% of the nuns were still alive at 85, while only one-third of the least positive 25% were. Overall, their study showed positive emotions correlated to a 10-year increase in life span, greater even than the differential between smokers and nonsmokers...
In an era when psychology is seeking to become a hard science of fM.R.I.’s and evidence-based therapies, when, as Seligman says, “if it doesn’t plug into the wall, it’s not science,” positive psychology can seem like a retro endeavor with the appeal of a cure that fits on a recipe card. While this may make it particularly adaptable for use in the classroom, critics are often most disturbed by what they perceive as its prescriptive nature. “There is way too little evidence of stable, long-term benefits — and lack of harm — to justify large-scale incorporation of positive psychology programs into schools,” Julie Norem, chairwoman of the psychology department at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said in an e-mail message. “It pays scant attention to individual differences.”...By comparison, positive psychology can seem as if it is laying out a road and asking the adherent to follow. “If I could wave my magic wand, there would be no positive psychology — there would be positive psychologists,” says Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, whose own work in the science of affective forecasting suggests that what we think will make us happy rarely does, or at least not for long. “I guess I just wish it didn’t look so much like a religion.”
Indeed, the sectlike feel of positive psychology can be hard to shake off when watching classes like Kashdan’s or even when reviewing the record of the field’s beginnings. When Seligman was first trying to establish the discipline, he and his colleagues invited 25 young psychologists to the Yucatán to discuss the positive side of life...Participants contrasted the “hedonic treadmill” with “the meaningful life.” To find the qualities that gave life purpose, the team examined Western religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Bushido as well as the mores of 70 nations. Over time, positive psychologists, led by Christopher Peterson, settled on 24 virtues — or character strengths, as they prefer to call them — including courage, modesty, spirituality and leadership. “The agenda comes from the world,” Seligman told me. “These are universals we’re after.”
The search for what unites humans in virtue was an ambitious effort to integrate psychology with those fields that have long sat alongside it: ethics, religion, philosophy. Before the retreat in Mexico, Seligman met with one of his former professors, the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick...It was Nozick who suggested a “taxonomy of character,” by which he meant, as Seligman put it, a list of “those abiding moral traits that everyone values.” Lyubomirsky remembers that many of the young scientists were uncomfortable doing so. “There was a lot of debate about it,” she said. “We were trained as hard scientists.” Seligman wasn’t so sure himself that he wanted virtue to be part of positive psychology either: he was wary of science becoming prescriptive, but Csikszentmihalyi was enthusiastic, Seligman recalled, and in the end Seligman agreed.
Two criticisms as troubling as the problem of positive psychology’s religiosity are 1) that it is not new — psychology always cared about happiness and 2) that the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good anyway. True, there have been attempts to marry psychology to ethics, to enlist it in the service of decoding what it means to be fully human, throughout its history. In the 1950s and ’60s, for instance, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, among others, established humanistic psychology to focus on what gave meaning to life, looking at the very subjects positive psychologists now take as their own. But where Maslow and Rogers relied primarily on qualitative research for their theories, Seligman and his colleagues hope to establish positive psychology — and thus the nature of happiness itself — on firmer scientific ground. The idea that whatever science there is may not yet be first-class troubles Seligman, too. “I have the same worry they do. That’s what I do at 4 in the morning,” he says.
With its emphasis on universals and practical applications, positive psychology fits these divided times: it preaches values without linking them to a particular value system and embraces spirituality without making you go to church. When positive psychology was introduced into the language-arts program at Strath Haven High School outside Philadelphia in 2003, the left-leaning parents welcomed it because the values were internationally accepted; all but the most conservative ones were reassured that there were values at all. Seligman recently held a meeting with the leaders from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx and the KIPP program, a national network of public charter schools, at which the educational leaders discussed introducing positive psychology into their schools. They are all looking to restore “wholeness” to the teenage years, to replace the supposed sense of certainty that the ’60s removed and that returned in the ’80s as a national political objective but that teachers are now too bogged down in the fundamentals to teach and adults, working longer and longer hours, are simply too busy to shore up at home. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for June, this time with a dozen schools; one item on the agenda is to add personal strengths and virtues to admissions criteria. (Educational Testing Service is exploring a test that students wouldn’t be able to fake.)
Not all positive psychologists are sure educational interventions are a good idea. Lyubormisky, for instance, turned down a similar request from the Compton school system in California. “I did not think the science was ready to be applied in that big a way,” she told me. Linkins acknowledges that happiness may come at the cost of a full understanding of literature and human complexity. But, he said, “it’s preferable to be happy than not, even if that means the potential for creative output is diminished.”...
Ironically, I'll be lecturing on "positive political theory" later this morning--unfortunately, in political science that just means the application of game theory and statistical analysis to political interactions.
It's an interesting article and I may check out that questionnaire later, however, IMO the best part is envisioning the kinds of scenarios ETS designing a "personal strengths and virtues admissions test" beings to mind.